“All of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means there is trouble until the robins come.” – Sandy (Laura Dern)
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) is a dark but beautiful film about mystery, love, obsession, and the darkness underneath everything, just out of view. It’s a work of genius, and at times, painful filmmaking that is wholly unique to its creator; the work of someone who has created a compelling world that means the world to him.
Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jeffrey, a young man back from college who gets caught in a mystery after finding a severed ear on his walk through the woods near his home. He brings it to the detective who lives nearby, whose daughter Sandy (played wonderfully by Dern) begins a friendship with Jeffrey and helps him discover there is more missing than just an ear. This leads to the apartment of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a local nightclub singer, and the nightmare that is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
MacLachlan plays Jeffrey as excessively curious and thoughtful, as though he had been waiting for something like this to come along and sweep him up. He is excited for the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, even if it’s from the closet of a woman’s apartment. What he sees through the slits of the closet door is terrifying and unleashes him into that world he wished to see. But he keeps going back, despite the danger. Is it the drive of such danger or sheer curiosity that keeps bringing him? It appears to be a little bit of both until that becomes something more lustful and emotionally charged.
The surrealness of a Lynch project adds a sense of wonder and awe to the affair. The use of people engaging in bizarre behavior at inopportune times is used spectacularly, like a woman dancing on the top of a car while Jeffrey is beaten by Frank. There is always something compelling in its other-worldliness, its objection in your mind to being at that place at that time, leaving you wondering if that really just happened, which, as it is a Lynch film, of course, it did.
The theme of darkness is important to Blue Velvet. Darkness is spoken of in a dream that Sandy describes, Dern giving a short but great monologue of how there was darkness because of the absence of robins, which represented love. The promise that the robins would one day return is played out in the use of bugs. The opening scene of Jeffrey’s father suffering a stroke on the lawn is capped by the sight of dozens, if not hundreds, of bugs, buzzing and clicking and clawing about, a nearly uncomfortable image of debauchery similar to Frank assaulting Dorothy in her apartment. In a previous scene, Jeffrey uses his cover as an exterminator to get into Dorothy’s apartment, acting as though he is ridding her kitchen of bugs to later gain access. And the end scene, with the sight of the robin with the bug in its mouth, is a symbol of the vanquishing of these bugs, that darkness, the light conquering over the dark. It’s connections like these that help give Blue Velvet its lasting power.
Familiar themes and touchstones from Lynch’s other works are at play, also, including emphasis on the red curtains blowing from Dorothy’s window, a bar that many of the characters frequent, a diner with apple pie, almost threatening industrial white noise, and a force of nature villain who is almost larger than life.
Hopper gives a performance of the ages in this film as Frank, an unhinged and incredibly dangerous man whose completely cracked emotional state is only combated by his love of huffing off an unknown gas he carries with him everywhere he goes. His steel eyes holding on to his prey as he breathes deeply from his oxygen mask is a terrifying image, as are the profane and angry words he lobs at anyone in his path.
One of the most chilling moments of the film involves Frank taking Jeffrey and Dorothy on a ride to his cohort Ben’s house, and while threats of extreme violence and another piece of the puzzle fit into place, Ben lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams”. There are multiple shots of MacLachlan standing almost slack among Frank’s thugs, being held by his collar and in complete fear, while Hopper stares intently at his singing friend, experiencing various emotions of joy, bliss, anger, and devastation. It’s a hint that perhaps all of these emotions are the same for him, an amalgamation of love and pain that are never far apart.
Rossellini is put through a gauntlet in her role. It’s a tough performance to watch, not only in how pained and tortured her character is but the damage she is put through. She is violated and abused multiple times, even calling for it when engaged in consensual lovemaking. It is done for a point, though. As uncomfortable as it can be, as a woman who has been through unspeakable horrors and desperate to regain the family taken from her. And for the toughness, it takes to see her put through such things, and the anger it can cause, Rossellini delivers something both powerful and memorable.
This film is fascinating from the get-go, straining emotions that are almost like raw nerves. It’s equal parts heartbreaking in its masterful direction and beautifully sincere with its dream-like quality and convictions. Nothing ever feels out of place, everything holding meaning in the eye of the beholder and becoming a journey that’s quite unlike anything else outside of the Lynch universe.
Jeffrey asks Sandy, “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” It’s a question this movie feels like it wants to answer, but it doesn’t because there is no real answer for it. There’s going to be darkness, just as there will be light, and eventually, that light will come. But that darkness will try and steal anything it can before it is vanquished. Fortunately, in Blue Velvet, that light is enough when the robins come. It’s a film that grips your very being and demands you to see what it has to show, and you come out the other side having experienced one of the very best of the 1980s, and one of the best mystery films the genre has to offer.